May 27, 2005

Star Wars: Episode III

Attila the Hub and I went to see The Revenge of the Sith today, and it was reasonably good. I was unable to figure out what they would have called it if they had stayed with The Revenge of the Jedi in the first trilogy. Would this then have to be entitled The Return of the Sith? You should be glad you aren't me, and don't have to think these thoughts.

It's impossible not to feel a bit wistful, wondering what it would be like to see one of the prequels—this one especially—without knowing ahead of time how they come out. Why, oh why didn't Lucas tell the story the right way around? Well, you know. He just didn't.

And there's a certain annoyance factor in listening to Wookies make that noise they make, and being asked to watch sword fights between Yoda and regular-size people. Well, well, well. At least some of us got over being short, and it's too bad George Lucas isn't one of them. Talk about your wish fulfillment scenes.

But that all goes with the territory: it is Star Wars, after all. I've been watching these movies most of my life. It's bound to wear a person down.

And then there is the political subtext injected into this part of the story with a big on-the-nose needle: "only a Sith would think in black and white." The lefty lines were obvious, and didn't go too well with the rest of the story.

Jason Apuzzo writes in Libertas, the excellent blog by the Liberty Film Festival people:

So what is Episode III? The film is the story of young Anakin Skywalker’s temptation to the Dark Side, and his transformation into the monstrous Darth Vader - the villain who loomed so darkly over the original Star Wars trilogy. Yes, there are other aspects to the film, as have been widely publicized. Yes, there is a kind of muddled liberalism that occasionally escapes the mouths of characters - particularly in important moments, such as the final confrontation between Vader and his one-time friend and mentor, Obi-Wan Kenobi. Yes, Vader mouths lines in that moment that are clearly intended to echo President Bush’s “for us or against us” speech before Congress. But over the course of a 2hr. 20min. film - a film that still somehow feels rushed - these are annoying distractions rather than central components of the story. And I could not help but think as I watched them that these lines were planted precisely to provoke the faux-controversy that now engulfs the film - just another of Lucas’ marketing schemes, to go along with the Pez dispensers and inflatable chairs. [Buy this Wookie coffee mug and win a free on-line subscription to!]

Revenge of the Sith lives or dies - and I believe lives - according to one central relationship in the story. Much as Return of the Jedi hinged on the fraught relationship between Luke Skywalker and his father, Sith revolves around the complex relationship between Anakin Skywalker and his mentor-cum-Mephistophelean tempter, Chancellor Palpatine. The best moments in the film - and by far the best moments in the entire prequel trilogy - come in the quiet, private moments between these two characters, as Palpatine weaves a complex web to ensnare his young charge. Critics have been right to praise Ian McDiarmid for his performance - Lucas and Hayden Christensen should also be praised for what they bring to this aspect of the drama. Much like Luke in The Empire Strikes Back, Anakin suffers from premonitions of harm to others. In Empire Luke fears for the lives of Leia and Han, tortured by Luke’s father in Cloud City. Luke’s fears lead him into a trap. In Sith, Anakin has nightmarish premonitions of his wife Padme’s death in childbirth. He shares these fears with Palpatine, who then tempts Anakin with promises of power over life and death - if only Anakin will succumb to the Dark Side, where such “unnatural” powers can be explored. Palpatine’s seduction is pure Garden of Eden stuff - tempting the young innocent with the ‘knowledge’ of good and evil.

I also found that central relationship interesting. It attempts to answer the question we've been asking since the first Star Wars trilogy: how does a good man turn to evil? And what else does it change about him? How, essentially, does this transformation occur? Some people find it impossible to believe that an impulse as good as wanting to save the life of a loved one could lead to a process of corruption so total, it drives a man mad with power. The film isn't without its flaws, but I do buy that central thesis: we can be corrupted by the decisions we make. I keep remembering a line from one of the Agatha Christie mysteries wherein Hercule Poirot proclaims, "we all know the effect of a murder on the victim. What interests me is the effect on the murderer." And all the best crime writers discuss this issue of moral decay: How a person could get there from here.

That's it. Our choices shape the world around us, but they also shape us. Perhaps not so quickly and dramatically as when Anakin Skywalker becomes Darth Vader, but in other ways. And in real life it usually takes longer. I kept remembering, as I watched this story, about the corruption of Benedict Arnold: his marriage to a loyalist woman, his participation in loyalist society. Life's real seductions take months and years, unlike the speedier ones of a sexual nature. But it does appear to go quickly: next thing you know, you're asking George Washington for command of West Point with the intent of turning it over to the British.

Episode III accomplishes what it needs to. As my husband points out, watching it in the abstract would be rather like seeing The Two Towers on its own: vaguely unsatisfactory. As it is, we're seeing the last piece of a puzzle fall into place.

I kept expecting Obi-Wan to die, and remembering that of course he does not: he needs to stay alive, so he can become the Alec Guinness of my adolescence. The whole telling-a-story-inside-out approach is profoundly odd.

But the movie is visually compelling, and Jar-Jar Binks doesn't utter a word. So I'd call it a worthwhile way to spend the afternoon.

Someday I'd like to see them all, chronologically, within the same weekend—and really get a sense of how well the entire story fits together. Then I'd never have to watch any of them ever again: I'd be done.

Posted by Attila at May 27, 2005 10:40 PM

Everyone I know always says right after the movie, "anakin went to the dark side so quickly." Then, the next day, they all say, "Oh, now I get it." Everything leads up to that one point. All the fear, all the way back to Phantom when he is talking about being scared to leave his mother.

I loved it. Was awesome. I disagree with all those who thought it wasn't darker. It is a movie about tragedy, and, were Lucas to really make it that deep and dark, people would have been rather upset and dissatisfied, I believe.

And, yes, I am a total Star Wars geek. Even have a Sith bacground on my phone and PDA :)

Posted by: William Teach at May 28, 2005 11:44 AM

It all starts with, "I could do so much more good in the world, IF ONLY I HAD MORE POWER!" Then along comes the tempter-dude, with the power...

Posted by: Ciggy at May 28, 2005 09:03 PM

Next thing you know, you're making seven figures and living in L.A. Being seen in all the right places, with the right people.

And it's all downhill from there.

Posted by: Attila Girl at May 28, 2005 11:15 PM

The politics? George Lucas, like any rich-self-righteous liberal, just had to pee in the water and mess things up for everyone. Thinking now a heavy he is, he had to inject his brand of politics into an otherwise harmless entertainment series. For another take on it, you might read the blog, Revenge Of The Silliest. It is at:

Posted by: Mahone Dunbar at May 31, 2005 05:38 AM

Actually I wondered how many other subplots Lucas stuffed into the third episode, such as:

- Palpatine's story to Anakin about Darth Plaegis who discovered how to stop death but couldn't save himself from his own apprentice - was the apprentice Palpatine?

- If that story holds true, then it makes a lot more sense how Anakin could finally betray the Emperor in Return of the Jedi - it's the circle come fully around

I do think Lucas overplayed his hand on "saving Padme", although you can see in the end how Anakin himself was betrayed by the Emperor. It would have been really interesting to know that Palpatine was planting those premonitions in Anakin's head from the get-go.

What was more interesting were the political machinations leading up to the destruction of the Jedi order - in a longer movie this would have been a better build-up to Anakin going to the dark side. I doubt Lucas did anything like the Lord of the Rings movies where there was extra material he packed into an extended edition.

If you want to fill in the cracks on the story, I guess you can either read the plethora of books out there that cover things in more detail. My kids also have the X-box game "Return of the Sith" which shows more about how Anakin does in the Jedi Temple, etc. It has a couple of alternative endings that are pretty cool, such as Anakin killing Obi-Wan and then whacking the Emperor...

Posted by: DC at May 31, 2005 07:53 AM

I'm not so sure the with me/against me is just a swipe at Bush:

Luke 11:23
"He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me, scatters."

In some ways the series parallels Christianity, where the Force is like the deep magic in the Chronicles of Narnia, and in other ways, as in the above, it stands in opposition to it. I suspect Lucas is exploring those ideas and does have a firm stand himself.

Posted by: Jon Cohen at May 31, 2005 09:33 AM

I do think that most of the sith/Bush stuff is overblown. For the most part, Sith was filmed in the summer of 2003. Yes, enough time to get the Loon style stuff going, but, really, it all goes back to 1977.

Posted by: William Teach at May 31, 2005 09:46 AM

Actually, the storyline reminds me of lefty do-gooder types. They start with a perfectionist idea of how things should be. Then, when it doesn't work, they blame recalcitrant humans and start killing the ones in the way. This requires more and more power until you have Stalin or Pol Pot. Sith could well be about the seduction of the moral by the use of power to make a "perfect world." Seems to me that most perfectionist ideas have the seeds of such a conversion.

Posted by: JorgXMcKie at June 1, 2005 08:51 AM

I don't see why you have to read the "political" content as pro-liberal. The moral relativists (only the jedi are absolute, there is more than one way to look at good, etc) are the EVIL ones, after all.

Posted by: raf at June 1, 2005 11:56 AM

Oh, I'd say some of the comments were contemporary leftist in nature. Remember Padme saying they should just stop the fighting and let diplomacy work? Diplomacy is the magic word? Just be prepared to listen to the enemy and maybe they will stop wanting to kill you. Then again, with the sith lord running both sides, who is supposed to be listening to whom?

Posted by: Steve Lassey at June 1, 2005 07:22 PM

The prequels are essentially a muddled mess:

*The Jedi tolerate and do not suppress slavery on Tatooine.
*The Jedi make no effort whatsoever to liberate one slave they know about personally (Anakin's mother).
*The Jedi reject family ties or emotions.
*The Sith operate on the principal of continual betrayal without much loyalty.
*The "Force" is essentially an inherited talent, forming a natural aristocracy and therefore anti-democratic.
*The old Republic has nothing between Clone mercenaries set up for evil deeds and a thin set of superheroes (Jedi). Citizen Soldiers are not in evidence.
*Slave labor is a marked dependency for everyone, whether it's droids or people.

It's only in the original movies that we see the formula for victory: ordinary people fighting for their freedom against tyrannies and a thin set of superheroes providing the critical difference.

As commentary on the human condition, Lucas is just all over the place.

Posted by: Jim Rockford at June 2, 2005 07:39 PM

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